Spring in New Zealand

Bay of Islands and other North Island beauty spots

Opua is tucked away to the south of the Bay of Islands, on the North East side of North Island.  It is a natural harbour with a modern marina, and a very large area to anchor, or moor. It is surrounded by hills, similar in a way to the west coast of Scotland.  The nearest town with ATMs and a supermarket is Paihia some 4 miles away.  Whilst a shuttle bus provides a nice profit for the operator, it is not very convenient, and coupled with the desire to explore as much of North Island as possible, we opted to buy a used car, with a guaranteed buy back price at the end of 6 months.  You can understand that we were very particular about the conditions……!

Because we planned to travel, leaving Pipistrelle afloat, and using Opua as our ‘home port’ we also arranged to rent a mooring some 300yds from the marina.  This removes a lot of the concern about the anchor dragging, as has happened to many other boats we know.

From our mooring – owner’s house, boat and jetty!

The weather here is also not dissimilar from Scotland, and for the first week we were not only wearing winter woolies, but had the heating on!  It continues to be incredibly changeable, with low pressure from the Southern Ocean, following high pressure systems which emanate from the Australian continent, roughly every 5 – 7 days.  The winds as one would expect back or veer as the systems move, but we did not expect them to move so fast, or have rain with high pressure….!  When the sun shines it is hot, and skin protection is necessary.  Within an hour or two it changes, and we are back wearing fleeces!     These fluctuations mean the barometer reads as high as 1030 and as low as 1006 within a matter of days.

With our lives largely sorted after two weeks of getting to know our way around, our friends Ann-Britt and Ingemar arrived from Sweden for a holiday in New Zealand.  We last saw them when they spent two weeks sailing with us in February 2010 in the BVIs, Caribbean.  Initially we sailed in the Bay of Islands, and travelled locally by car.

with Ann-Britt & Ingemar at beach BBQ

The Bay of Islands is spectacular.  It covers an area that is roughly 10nm by 5nm, and from Cape Brett (of Hole in the Rock fame) to Cape Waiwiki has at least 30 islands, and we are told over 140 anchorages.  The islands are green, many of them 80 to 100 metres in height with woods and pastureland and paths to hike along.  We would describe it as an area of unrivalled beauty.  The following photos give a good impression.

Roberton Island and beyond

From Urupukapuka Island

On Motorua Island

…and another view!

Amongst other anchorages, we visited Army Bay where Bob collected a bucketful of green lipped mussels.  Oysters and scallops are also readily available, but the coldness of the water deterred us from swimming, let alone diving!

Mussels ….shortly afterwards served as dinner!

Still following in his wake, we saw the spot where Captain James Cook landed, and close by the Treaty of Waitangi was signed on February 6th, 1840.  This was an historic agreement between the British Crown and the Maori that ended hostilities, and the date is now a national holiday. The Treaty House and Grounds were a must see, and in 1940 a meeting house was built to mark the centenary, and the grounds also house 35m waka taua, or war canoes!  It was here that we first got close to a Tui bird, distinctive with its white neck bauble and call, feeding on flax flowers.

The Meeting House

War canoes


Next was a journey north to Cape Reinga, almost the furthest northern cape in North Island.  One is immediately struck by the refreshing lack of litter and graffiti.  Land’s End in the UK is a disgrace in comparison, and the owners should take note and emulate what the Kiwis have created!  There is also much to learn here, and on the paved footpath to the lighthouse, there are numerous stone notices detailing sights or events.

Cape Reinga – where Pacific and Tasman meet

Our accommodation ….

On the way south we stopped for the night on 90 Mile Beach, staying in Hukatere Lodge (www.hukatere.com), an amazing property set amongst the sand dunes where the hospitality is excellent, wild horses roam, and one can walk for miles in a wilderness.   We also met Harry, a very interesting character who was relocated to S Island as a child on his own, returned to N Island, has Manuka bees which are prized near Cape Reinga, and currently helps looking after guests who are staying at the lodge.

Harry – also mentioned in several books

Ornate entrance to loos

Kawakawa is just south of Opua, and has been made famous by the public toilets designed by Friedensreich Hundertwasser.  The Austrian born architect and artist’s work can be found from Vienna to Osaka, but he lived near Kawakawa from 1973 until his death in 2000.  The curved shapes and brightly coloured ceramic tiles and bottles are different from anything else we have seen, but are classic Hundertwasser!  For more information about the life of Hundertwasser click here. 

Detail from a mural

After a few more days exploring the Bay, we set off overland for a 9 day tour.  Our first stop was on the west coast of N Island, to see the Waipoua forest, which is home to the tallest and oldest remaining Kauri trees in New Zealand.  The forest is home to NZ’s largest living kauri tree, Tane Mahuta, Lord of the Forest, with a girth of 13.77m, and a height of 51.5m.  It is thought to be around 2,000 years old.

The Lord

Kauri trees once covered much of N Island, and buried Kauri trunks have been found to be 45,000 years old.  The timber, like a hard pine, was used for shipbuilding amongst many other uses, and has a very attractive grain.  The trees are massive, and in one kauri workshop we found a staircase that had been constructed inside the kauri trunk, and was used by visitors to access the first floor.

We stayed at Matakohe, which was a sawmilling town in the 19th and 20th centuries.  It is now home to the magnificent Kauri Museum that tells the kauri story, and has a complete reconstructed sawmill within it.  It also has an amazing collection of restored farm and wood machinery, complete sections of kauri trees, kauri furniture and carving and a very large collection of carved gum that comes from these trees rather like amber.  Both wood and gum are extremely valuable.

Prized gum display in vitrine

Expensive kauri bowls

Model fishing boat and mannequin

Steam driven sawmill

We then crossed to the east coast, passing through Auckland towards the Coromandel peninsula, and the winelands of Gisborne and Hawkes Bay.  The Coromandel will be remembered for its stunning views, excellent mussels, great walks, and the active gold mine in Waihi town, which is 63km NW of Tauranga.

Stunning Coromandel seascape

Cathedral Cove, Coromandel

We began our visit of Waihi at the Gold Mining Museum, which tells the story back to its beginnings in 1878 when it was very much a lottery as to whether the miners would be successful or not in their claim, through to the present day when the mine is operating 12 hours a day, 5.5 days a week.  The Martha Mine is an open mine, and from the viewing platform one looks over 200m down into the pit.  Huge lorries take 25 minutes to climb out of the depths, and every afternoon at 1500 dynamite is used to blow up more rock. The 100 year old Cornish pumphouse was moved several hundred yards to preserve it for future generations to see.  Gold is extracted from the rock by crushing the ore to a fine powder.  The resulting slurry is fed into tanks, where a process removes the precious metals.  Eventually after more processing gold and silver are deposited onto stainless steel cathodes, and eventually they are left with a 99% pure mix of gold and silver bullion.  Rock with as little as 1gram of gold per tonne can be mined economically using open-pit modern technology.

Cornish pumphouse

Digging for gold at Martha Mine

The drive over the hills to Gisborne was spectacular, and an early visit to a winery was a must.  Hawkes Bay is renowned for its excellent wine in NZ, and here we were able to taste the Sauvignons that the climate in the north of N. Island will not support.

Which wine to taste?

Gisborne was an overnight stop, followed by a 3 hour drive to Napier the next day, some 215km further south along the coast.  Napier is the real home to the NZ wine industry, with several large vineyards, and we arrived in time for a late lunch at the Mission Estate Winery.  It was established in 1851 by French Missionaries, and is NZ’s oldest winery and the birth place of NZ wine.

Mission Estate winery

We enjoyed an excellent lunch on the patio, and afterwards partook of the obligatory wine tasting!  Having found a motel for the night in Napier, we then explored the town, which was rebuilt in the early 1930s following a massive earthquake that destroyed the town.  Christchurch déjà vu!  Nowhere else in the world can you see such a variety of buildings in the styles of the 1930s – Stripped Classical, Spanish Mission and above all Art Deco, the Jazz age style – in such a concentrated area.  The architect was Frank Lloyd Wright’s teacher.

Napier and Hawkes Bay

Art Deco facade complete with familiar name!

More art deco ….

…and a masonic hotel

What! Tiki wine?

A further visit to the art deco wine museum complete with Tiki wine (Tikis are sacred statues found on the Marquesas! For information about the Marquesas, follow this link) was called for the next day by Elaine, before we continued our journey to Lake Taupo, 368km into the heart of North Island.  Lake Taupo is Australasia’s largest lake, and was formed by a massive volcanic eruption some 26,500 years ago.  It created a 660 sq km hole in the earth, and sent ash flying all over the world.  The resulting lake is cold, but that did not deter Ann-Britt and Ingemar from taking their customary early morning dip – the only place that did not occur was in the harbour at Opua, the large jelly fish floating by put them right off a swim!

The town is a busy destination for the tourist, and there was no lack of motels all vying for our business.  Having arranged accommodation, including a hot tub adjoining Bob & Elaine’s room, there was still time to visit the Huka Falls.  The source of the Waikato River is Lake Taupo, and not far from the source, the waters of the Waikato rush at almost 250,000 litres per second through a chasm and then over a 11m ledge to foam in a semi circular basin.  This is enough water to fill two olympic swimming pools!  It was an incredible sight.

Huka Falls

An excellent dinner venue was chosen by Ann-Britt and Ingemar in a restaurant overlooking the lake.  Unfortunately the visibility was not clear enough to see the snow capped mountains on the far side though the sunset was colourful and food and company more than made up for this minor drawback!

The next day we visited the Aratiatia Rapids, where water is released daily through a dam at a rate of 80,000 litres per second for 15 minutes 4 times a day, to power the hydro electric Aratiatia Power Station, the first of eight power stations/dams along the river.

Flood gates opening….

…a raging torrent for 15 minutes

Orakei Korako is a geothermal area that has more active gushing geysers than any other geothermal field in the country, and the silica terraces are reported to be the largest of their kind in the world.  It was certainly extremely active when we visited with its boiling mud pools and considerable flow of very hot water into the lake below very interesting.

Glorious mud…

Hubble, bubble …

Our time with Ann-Britt and Ingemar was drawing to a close, and on their last full day with us we visited the Waitomo Caves, to enable them to go black water rafting.  We had done this on our last visit to NZ in 2004, thought it an amazing experience, so declined a repeat.  However, Ann-Britt and Ingemar went and thoroughly enjoyed donning wetsuits, booties, helmets, torches and sitting in an innertube to float through the caves to see thousands of glow worms hanging from the cave roofs.  They even had some drama when the inner tube that was Ingemar’s float was punctured and started deflating.

After a picnic lunch on the way to Auckland airport, we finally bid them a fond farewell, and made our way back to Pipistrelle.  Throughout their four week stay with us, we had reasonably summery weather – though having been in the Tropics for so long we still found it cold and did not swim.  They left just as another few days of bad weather set in.

Ann-Britt and Ingemar at The Meeting House

The next highlight was Elaine’s birthday just before Christmas, where we made a return visit to the Omata Estate winery, and were joined by our friends Bernd and Elli from Elbe.  The sun shone, the views out over the Bay were as spectacular as ever, and we enjoyed a great lunch and the first birthday cake Elaine has enjoyed in the last 9 years.  We were picked up from the Russell ferry, a 5 minute crossing from Opua, and driven back afterwards.  An excellent day to be remembered.

The wine …

Birthday girl with prezzie!

On Christmas Eve, we slipped our mooring and headed out to the islands in light winds and warm sunshine – a mere 2 hour sail and at lunchtime we dropped anchor in a sheltered bay, went ashore, climbed a steep hill late afternoon and returned for supper – getting to know our NZ wines fairly well now, with a number of different bottles sampled and stowed!

Santa duly slid down the mast overnight and stockings were full on Christmas morning, after which we had an extremely leisurely and luxurious breakfast, of bucks fizz, smoked salmon, scrambled eggs and croissants!  Late afternoon we moved to another bay, again in sunshine, off the island of Urupukapuka (otherwise known as Baker’s Island), lit the BBQ to cook a deboned joint of lamb plus various trimmings.  Dessert was Christmas pudding and brandy cream and it was such a treat to enjoy good quality ‘traditional’ Christmas fare.  The only item we forgot were Christmas crackers!  But for the first time in what seems like weeks we were even able to sit in the cockpit to eat!

Boxing Day saw us hiking round the island with Bernd and Elli who also joined us for the Christmas BBQ.  The scenery is just breathtaking and we stopped many times to admire the views (and catch our breath).

Silver Fern – the New Zealand emblem

This entry was posted in Bay of Islands, Cape Reinga, Coromandel, Gisborne, Lake Taupo, Napier, New Zealand, Opua and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.